The Ethiopian Jews, who primarily relocated from Ethiopia to Israel through Israeli rescue missions in the 1980s, form a unique minority of today’s Israeli population. Back In Ethiopia, they were known as Falasha, meaning “strangers”, and have referred to themselves as Beta Israel, or “the house of Israel”. Their settlements were scattered in the northwestern area of Ethiopia and the border zone with the Sudan.
The approach and methodology of the conventional theory on the origins of the Ethiopian Jewry, as proposed by James Quirin, rejects the existence of an ancestral connection between the contemporary Ethiopian Jewish community and the ancient Israelite-Jews. Proponents of this theory trace the origins of the group to what they perceive as a local Ethiopian separatist movement within Christianity in the 14th-to-16th century.
The influence of this theory with regards to how the media continues to define the origins of the Ethiopian Jewry is overwhelming. A Newsweek article reports: “Historians still debate the precise origins of Ethiopia’s Jewish community but agree that it developed largely in isolation until the 20th century.” The statement reiterates the idea embedded in the traditional theory that the group has developed locally, “in isolation,” without an ancient Israelite connection. Although a majority of historians have subscribed to this hypothesis, not all scholars agree on its premises as the article’s authors insinuate. Scholars, such as David Kessler in his work The Falashas, argue that there is no persuasive reason to assume that the Ethiopian Jews descend from Christian separatists since their faith, among many other reasons, is an authentic form of Judaism that predates Christianity.
In my articles (here, here, and here), I have argued that historical sources and evidence overwhelmingly suggest that the group directly descends from ancient Israelite-Jewish origins. As I demonstrate, sources and evidence dating between the 1st to 4th centuries period and contemporary times point to the historical continuity of the Ethiopian Jews as a group. I stress that the group’s religious structure is fundamentally Jewish and that it is unreasonable to assume that it has developed locally, in what is today Ethiopia, without authentic Israelite contributions involving culture, religion, and genetics.
I also base my argument on genetic research from Genetic Literacy Project founder Jon Entine’s book Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People, which suggests that the group was formed when fragmented Jewish communities in the region amalgamated in the mid-first millennium. (Furthermore, I stress that the Ethiopian Jews share indisputable historical, geographical and probably genealogical connections with Northern Sudan that are yet to be examined by scholars in depth.)
A genetic study that is rarely if ever mentioned in Ethiopian Jewish research was published by the highly regarded American Journal of Human Genetics. As the BBC reports, the study suggests that “Ethiopians mixed with Egyptian, Israeli or Syrian populations about 3,000 years ago.” Professor Chris Tyler-Smith, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, told the BBC: “By analyzing the genetics of Ethiopia and several other regions we can see that there was gene flow into Ethiopia, probably from the Levant, around 3,000 years ago, and this fits perfectly with the story of the Queen of Sheba.” Note that the study does not contradict the 2007 work by Entine or other historical evidence. The results suggest that Israelites-Jews entered the region 3,000 years ago, but they were not necessarily consolidated as a group until about 1,500 years ago. Also, note the study does not necessarily confirm the biblical story of affair between Queen Sheba of ancient Ethiopia and king Solomon of ancient Israel.
Worth mentioning is the research of the Iraqi Semitic languages specialist Jaafar Hadi Hassan in 2015. Hassan is widely considered one of the most renowned scholars in Iraq and the Arab world. In his research, he criticizes historians for assuming that the Scottish explorer James Bruce was the first to “discover” the existence of the Ethiopian Jewry in the second half of the 18th century. Hassan explains that the Arabs were closely acquainted with the Ethiopian Jews long before Bruce entered the picture.
One of the sources Hassan cites is the work of the 16th century Arab historian Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Jizani. Writing in the first half of the 16th century, Shihab al-Din explains—as I translated from Arabic: “The Semien country belonged to the Jews of Abyssinia [in what is today Ethiopia] and their name in their language is Falasha [a local name for the Ethiopian Jews]” The Arab historian then goes on to describe interactions between the Ethiopian Jews and the Muslim leader Imam al-Ghazi.
More important is the 17th century Arab historian Al-Himi al-Hassan bin Ahmad. He states—as I also translated from Arabic:
” After completing seven phases, we contacted the country of the Falasha; the first of which is a great valley under a towering mountain of supreme grandiose and extreme height. The name of the valley is ‘Aghnah’ and the name of the mountain is ‘Semien’. “
“This tribe they call Falasha is a large tribe, one of the greatest tribes in Abyssinia. Their faith is Judaism and they abide by the law of the Torah ( . . . ) They were not submissive to the king who invaded, fought, and assaulted them in all parts of their country so that he has surrounded them by the Christian country. He eventually defeated them and forced them out of their fortresses ( . . . ) Most of them converted to Christianity except for a small minority.”
Hence, it is certainly problematic from a scholarly standpoint when a BBC contributor writes, “The main challenge in tracing the origins of a Jewish presence in Ethiopia is the lack of reliable accounts”. We can conclude that since the influence of the traditional theory on the media and the scholarly scheme of research on the Ethiopian Jews is dominating, there is a need for a new unbiased approach to investigate the history and origins of the group.
Ibrahim M. Omer is a 3D Animation specialist with interest in the reconstruction of ancient historical settings. He has worked as an academic in the social science areas of linguistics, culture, and history. He is the author of the academic website AncientSudan.org.
Ethiopian Judaism nearly identical to that practiced during Second Temple Period
Researcher Dr. Yossi Ziv has researched Ethiopian Judaism and found an amazing discovery: Ethiopian Jews' customs and traditions extremely similar to those described in Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Temple Era texts.
Yael Freidson|Published: 10.12.16 , 23:35
Dr. Yossi Ziv has been researching the religious rituals of the Ethiopian Jewish population still in Ethiopia and discovered that they maintained the same customs and traditions as the Jews of the Second Temple period for the past two thousand years.
"It’s knowledge which hasn't been written anywhere, and has been preserved in their traditions," the researcher said.
"They have been curating ancient customs that have disappeared from the world. They provide examples of how the leaders of the nation of Israel would have behaved during the time of the Second Temple."
Israeli-Ethiopian elders performing the Sigid ritual in Jerusalem (Photo: Reuters)
The professor released his findings at a seminar which was held at the Kfar Etzion Field School right before the Jewish-Ethiopian holiday of Sigid.
Ziv said that many Jewish-Ethiopian customs go against modern Jewish practice, but perfectly align with customs and rituals described on scrolls found in the Qumran caves and in books dating back to the Second Temple Period. The Qumran Caves are where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which include the third oldest Hebrew Bible ever found.
Some of these Second Temple Era customs include not lighting Shabbat candles, adhering to an ancient custom prohibiting the use of fire lit even before Shabbat started. Along with this, no flame is to be passed from one vessel to another on Shabbat, even if it was lit before Shabbat came in.
"They don't even adhere to the famous rule which says that 'Shabbat rules may be disregarded for the purpose of saving a life,'" Ziv said. "For the Ethiopian Jews, the sanctity of Shabbat must be preserved, even at the cost of human life."
Evidence of this stringent observance of Shabbat was also seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Ethiopian women at the Sigid festival (Photo: Reuters)
Ziv added that there were different sects of Jews living during the time of the Second Temple—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots—who all lived according to different beliefs and rituals. Jewish rituals and customs today mostly take after the Pharisee tradition.
Another example in the differences between mainstream Judaism and Ethiopian Judaism relates to sex during Shabbat. According to modern Jewish tradition, marital relations are not only permitted, but encouraged on the day of rest. Meanwhile, Ethiopian tradition holds that all sex is forbidden on Shabbat so as not to sully the body. Examples of this Ethiopian tradition have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The discrepancies between the more "modern" Jewish law and the law of the Ethiopian Jewish elders—known as the Kessim—can be seen in different areas of Jewish law.
According to mainstream Jewish custom, people in mourning refrain from cutting their hair or shaving their beards for a specified period of time, whereas Ethiopian custom is for mourners to cut their hair short and shave their beards—another tradition Ziv saw written in texts from the Second Temple Era.
Ethiopian Jewish women in Jerusalem at the Sigid ritual (Photo: Reuters)
"After the Prophet Job underwent his bad tidings, it is written that he cut his hair. It was also written in some of the writings of Isaiah and Ezekiel that the Jews would cut their hair short during periods of mourning," Ziv said.
Another prominent Ethiopian Jewish tradition is strict observance of purity laws. For instance, when a woman is menstruating in Ethiopian Jewish society, she is sent to live in a specified tent outside of the village until she becomes "pure" once again, as is prescribed to be done in the Temple Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Kessim Israeli-Ethiopian leaders (Photo: Reuters)
This ritual purity is another reason why ritual circumcision is not carried out in Ethiopian Jewish synagogues. Therefore, the circumcisions are carried out next to the tent of the menstruating women, and often done by the women. It is only after the first 40 days after a boy is born that an Ethiopian mother can return to the village. If a girl is born, then the mother must wait 80 days. The baby naming would then occur in the village.
'They were a part of us, but were then cut off'
The differences between the rituals and customs of mainstream Judaism and Ethiopian Judaism undermined the authority of the traditional Ethiopian Jewish leaders after they made aliyah to Israel, and even undermined the Ethiopians' claims that they are indeed Jews.
However, Ziv says that the customs and traditions of the Ethiopian Jews and their strong resemblance to Jewish traditions during the Second Temple Period only serve to strengthen their connection to Judaism as a whole.
"I'm convinced that this community was a part of the nation of Israel during ancient times, but they were cut off. We don't know when or why, but it occurred before the Pharisic tradition became the mainstream Jewish tradition," Dr. Ziv said."The Jews of Ethiopia lived in exile and in complete isolation from the rest of the nation of Israel. However, they continued to keep the traditions of our forefathers up until this very day."
Falash Mura is the name given to the community of Ethiopians who practice the Jewish faith and claim the right to live in Israel. Every year, the city of Gondar hosts what is billed as the largest Passover celebration in the world. The Falash Mura community bakes and sews for days, preparing for the Jewish holiday. While thousands of other Falash Mura have been airlifted to Israel, for these devotees, the struggle to return to what they see as their spiritual homeland continues. Filmmaker Lior Sperandeo documents this Ethiopian “Jewish island” where people dream of immigrating to Israel. I spoke with him about his The People of project.
Who are the people you feature in your film?
In the local Amharic language, they are called the Falash Mura, “a man with no land.” These are Jews who in the 19th century were converted to Christianity and thus were not welcomed to Israel like the rest of Ethiopia’s Jewry. Falash Mura is not a nickname favored by the Jews of Ethiopia, but rather a moniker that stuck through time. Their dream is to immigrate to Israel, where they can practice a normal Jewish life.
Why did you choose to focus on this community?
I’ve heard about the Falash Mura’s struggle to return to their spiritual homeland long before going to Ethiopia, but the logic seemed sound: If they had chosen to convert and turn their backs on Judaism, why should they be allowed automatic citizenship in the Jewish state? It was only when I set foot in Gondar that I understood how wrong I was. I found myself in a beautiful ”Jewish island” in the middle of Africa, and I knew that a new journey was about to begin. This is another muted community with a story that has to be told.
What was the best part about the experience?
Changing my perspective on this matter. The stated reason for not allowing the Falash Mura to return to Israel is that they are not recognized as Jews. But after my visit I can testify that this is an absurd claim. In Gondar I found one of the most vibrant and dedicated Jewish communities that I have experienced. These are men and women who value their Jewish religion and traditions in the most genuine way. In 1950, Israel created the Law of Return, which gives all Jews and spouses of Jews the right to immigrate to and settle in Israel. This made me pause and ask myself, What is the real reason Israel won’t let them in? I’m not sure a Jewish community in any other continent [would] be treated this way. This is why I created this film, to shed more light on this matter in order to help this community to fulfill a dream.
Were there any challenges?
It’s the biggest and also the most common challenge for a photographer in a foreign country: building a level of trust with the community. It is usually a time-consuming and exhausting process but also the only way to peel back the layers and reach the depths of the issues I am trying to explore. The key is finding a common language that allows me to connect to my subject and go from there. I started showing up every morning at the synagogue in Gondar, with a kippah on my head and the camera in my hands. I am never at ease when I enter this holy building. It feels like my presence is interrupting something important and bigger than me. This was not the case with the synagogue in Gondar. My presence was welcome. I had every reason to feel like an intruder, but I felt at home. It took only a few days before the members of the community got used to the idea of this guy, uncomfortably wearing his kippah, running around snapping photos of them. They started to open up, and I became that fly on the wall.
How long did the shoot last?
About a week, just before the Jewish holiday of Passover, [which] commemorates the story of Exodus, when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. Every year Gondar hosts the largest Passover celebration in the world, with over 3,000 guests. Members of the community work for days, sewing and baking thousands of handmade round matzoth. On the night of Passover, each song and verse received a new meaning to me—to think that I have the privilege of celebrating the festival of freedom and liberty, while here my Jewish brothers and sisters are still waiting for their exodus.
What are you working on next?
I continue with my latest web series The People Of, where I highlight different human and social struggles around the world in order to create a tool and voice for muted populations. I’m looking for my next destination.
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According to a 2014 report Ethiopian Israelis have the highest poverty rate, earn significantly less, and live in more densely packed neighborhoods.
July 31, 2016 at 1:33 pm
Widespread discrimination of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews, including in public institutions, was the focus of a review submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Israel’s justice ministry on Sunday, reported the local Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
A large portion of the report focused on reforming policies in the education system, where children of Ethiopian Jews have allegedly been turned away from public schools and faced discrimination from other Israeli parents. Instead they have often been placed into a separate special schooling system.
It also highlighted discrimination by welfare officers against Ethiopian Jewish families, in religious institutions, healthcare and from police.
Though Ethiopian Israelis have long complained about discrimination, the issue gained widespread attention last year when a video of an Ethiopian Israeli soldier being beaten by police prompted protests in Tel Aviv, which police used tear gas to disperse.
According to a 2014 report by the government-sponsored Ethiopian National Project, the 135,000 Ethiopian Israelis have the highest poverty rate, earn significantly less, live in more densely packed neighborhoods and face disadvantages in education compared to the rest of the Jewish population.